Coronavirus: Hospitals could be blamed for NHS staff deaths as coroners barred from investigating government failings

Coroners will be able to investigate deaths of NHS workers who caught Covid-19 and lacked protective equipment but they won’t be allowed to question national policy

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Monday 04 May 2020 19:19
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Coroners will be able to hold inquests into deaths of NHS staff from Covid-19
Coroners will be able to hold inquests into deaths of NHS staff from Covid-19

Local hospital bosses and GPs could be blamed for deaths of workers caused by national shortages of protective equipment, doctors have warned.

While coroners will be barred from looking at national policies and decision-making around shortages of protective equipment, the chief coroner has insisted they will still be able to investigate the deaths of health workers who may have contracted Covid-19 due to inadequate local supplies.

The Doctors’ Association UK has warned the situation could mean local managers are held “accountable for a situation out of their control”.

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson, who represents local NHS organisations, told The Independent the wider context of the situation that hospitals were operating in needed to be considered.

More than 100 health and care staff are thought to have died after contracting the Covid-19 virus. While coronavirus deaths would not normally be reported to a coroner because they are natural deaths, anyone who is thought to have caught the disease at work could be investigated.

Chief coroner Mark Lucraft QC sparked concerns last week when he issued guidance to coroners advising them that an inquest should not consider issues of national policy and decision-making and should be limited to the facts affecting the death they were considering.

In a follow-up letter to DAUK, the chief coroner said: “I did not say (nor is it in my power to say) that PPE or any other aspect of evidence in relation to the circumstances of the particular death may not be discussed at inquest.”

He said the scope of any inquest was a matter for the individual coroner but added: “The law is that inquests are not suitable forums to discuss national or high-level public policy matters.”

Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden, president of the DAUK, said: “Yet again we are seeing a situation where fundamental systemic failures are not being taken into account, in terms of both patient and staff safety. By not considering national provision of PPE and ever-changing guidance we fail to hold the government to account and to address the crux of the problem.

“We risk holding local hospitals and GPs accountable for a situation out of their control. There is a real lacuna between inquests and inquiries that risks families falling between the cracks and their questions going unanswered.”

She added: “Sadly, over 100 health and social care workers have paid the ultimate price, some sadly after raising concerns about a lack of PPE. It is now only right that their families and loved ones are granted a full investigation in order to get the answers they deserve.”

The DAUK believes a full public inquiry should be set up to examine the failure to provide NHS staff with adequate protective clothing.

Chris Hopson, from NHS Providers, said hospital managers were always mindful of their responsibilities to keep staff safe.

“That is why they have been quick to raise concerns over PPE as they arise, and have worked wherever possible to mitigate and resolve problems, be it through mutual aid, securing local supplies and exploring how stock can safely be re-used in line with national or international guidelines,” he said.

“It’s important though that consideration is given to the wider context in which trusts are operating, where pressure on supplies and distribution have fuelled understandable concerns over safety. Trust leaders are doing all they can to ensure a safe working environment, but there are some aspects of this that are beyond their immediate control.”

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